My Expensive Hill Farming Habit

It’s making us rich. And poor.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY P. SAVAGE

In Vermont the words “hill farm” mean different things to different people. To visitors, especially those so besotted with the rolling green mountains that they start perusing the real estate ads, “hill farm” sounds like the loveliest two words in the world, connoting a remote sanctuary cradled on a green slope, with views of mountains and away from the busy world of commerce.

To people who’ve lived years in Vermont, with its long winters and brief summers, “hill farm” usually translates to “lousy thin soils over rocks, where you can’t make a living trying to farm.” Vermonters know the only good things about a hill farm are the views. The profitable farms, on which you can raise enough to pay your debts, are mostly all in the river valleys, where the soil is deep and rich.

Our own farm is something in between. Our soils are not as bad as some, not as excellent as others, and we somehow manage to be on the top of a low hill that flattens out for a hundred acres or so. We own 42 acres of flat land at the top of a gorgeous green hill with views—we’re rich!

And if you look at the inner-wealth stream instead of the income stream, it’s true—we’re rich. There is no arguing with this. I want nothing in this life as much as to live right here on this hill. We grow much of our own food. We move cows from pasture to pasture. We watch apples and pears set on the trees and get large and red and gold by October.

But then there’s the income stream…where we both work at outside jobs and the farm sucks up every penny that doesn’t go to pay bills and taxes. And then some. The thing we’ve raised most successfully is our debt ceiling.

For nearly 19 years now my husband and I have been strategizing how to keep our land as working land and not have it cost us so much money. We’ve scaled up and back down again—multiple times. We’ve tried raising specialty breed cattle where the value is in the genetics. We’ve bred calves and we’ve bought calves. We’ve kept bulls and not kept bulls. We’ve sprayed apples and not sprayed apples. It’s amazing the hidden costs that somehow man-age to…wait for it…stay hidden—until you get the bill.

We’re heavily educated, and we like to experiment and do research—yet the economics of farming are unforgiving. Year after year. At least when you’re trying to keep the scale small. We don’t want to work 100-hour weeks on the farm because we like having other work. We like to travel and hike and ski. We just want farming to be in our lives without drowning us in debt.

In the years we’ve been farming, the prices of equipment and supplies have doubled and tripled, while the prices paid for food stay flat. The milk prices are back down to where they were in 1976, and dairy farms are going out all over these rolling hills. Artisan foods— ready-to-eat products with lots of value added—are succeeding, along with breweries and distilleries. But for raw products, vegetables are about the only thing you can raise on a few acres and pay your bills—if you work at it full-time. Pretty much all small-scale animal enterprises are unprofitable.

So we should just stop. It’s a proven black hole into which we throw money. Yet we’re hooked on this thing that’s making us as poor as drug addicts. The problem is that we—and every other farmer—have already spent vast quantities on buildings and equipment, and to stop is to throw that money away. Which, of course, leaves us throwing good money after bad. Except it doesn’t feel that way. How is it bad money to invest in a building that houses our chickens and our cows and our hay and most of our tools and equipment? And the pool table. And the ping-pong table. And the cider press. (It’s a big barn.) Would we be happier without this building? Some days yes, but just a tiny percent. Most days we feel lucky to walk out to that barn and care for these animals that trust us. And then, later, after their good, well-fed lives, put them in the freezer to feed us in return.

Could I really not plant potatoes and beets and onions and carrots to fill our root cellar? Could I buy juice in plastic bottles at the Kwik Mart instead of canning 35 gallons of the richest apple cider I’ve ever tasted and opening a jar every few days all year?

Could I buy packages of beef or chicken that didn’t have our farm name on them and get the same feeling of satisfaction that I do from preparing a meal of organic food raised a few feet away?

And what of our hay land? Our pastures? If we didn’t put out cows to graze the grass and leave behind manure, what would happen to these fields? We could rent them out to people who’d mine them, taking multiple cuts of hay with minimal applications of manure. Until the grass got thin and full of weeds, and then, eventually, no one would want to cut hay on these lands and the trees would start growing back.

In truth, we didn’t really want to know how much money we were losing.

But as my daughter gets ready to go to college this fall, it occurs to me that we could probably pay her giant tuition bill if we shut down the farm for the year. The many thousands we spend on replacing and fixing equipment, feed and fencing supplies, and fuel and insurance and vet bills—all of this might be funneled into tuition. And then we wouldn’t have to work on the farm those nights and weekends when we seriously don’t want to.

Except…there’s that early evening in the orchard when the sun strikes the leaves just right to make them glow, and I notice a new tree graft is beginning to take, and the bobolinks are chortling on every side of me, and I have that thought again: I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to live here.

There’re the mornings when I walk out to move the cows and their lowing greets me from across the field. They’re glad to see me because I mean fresh grass. And our fluffy little herding dog is bounding along next to me, and I smell the sweet tang of cut grass and the clean cow smell of manure and, well, I am happy. Gloriously happy. At what desk would I ever be that alive?

Taking my basket out to harvest the green beans for supper straight from the garden. Picking raspberries for an ice cream sundae on my son’s birthday. Watching the barn swallows swoop in the air currents around the big gray barn.

Picking a ripe apple that’s got various blemishes but tastes better than any apple I’ve ever bought in a store and thinking, I grew that. I actually grew that.

Lately I find myself apologizing to our children for having so little to help pay for the things they want. I’ve had to make the shameful confession to my siblings that my husband and I have been building up debt while they’ve steadily built up savings. I can’t pay my share of my father’s long-term care. When it’s come to admitting how little we’ve saved for our kids’ colleges, I’ve had to listen to my mother tell me to call one of those debt consolidations services that advertise on TV.

I’m embarrassed because it feels like we’ve been blind and stupid, blithely spending money on something we should have quit years ago. We knew there was no money in farming. We just somehow thought it would be different for us, that’d we game the system.

In truth we’ve done what so many farmers do—we didn’t really run the numbers because we didn’t want to know how much money we were losing. When we finally made ourselves do it, we were appalled to see that, when all the potential income and expense was tracked, if nothing at all goes wrong, the maximum profit we could possibly make on the cows in a year is $5000. And that’s without paying ourselves a cent for our own labor.

It’s an endeavor that makes you work every day and then pay for the privilege.

The only comparable job I know is being a parent. Which brings up the question, what has it meant for our children that we’ve chosen land over money—has this been fair to them?

They, too, have come to appreciate bittersweet—that we’ve sacrificed things like new furniture to have other things, like the most tender steaks ever. They might not make these same choices themselves, but they know how to raise those steaks if they want them. Not every kid does.

For myself, I couldn’t be happy without the farm. At least not anytime soon. But I’m letting go of the need to prove something with it. I still want to raise food, but maybe I don’t need to raise every item every year. We could, if we want, begin to wean ourselves from our farming habit. I think.

Our finances would look better on paper. We could pay more tuition.

Whether we’d be as wealthy, well, the jury’s out on that.


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